In class last Friday, my introductory anthropology class watched the documentary First Contact by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson.
First Contact presents, according to the entry on IMDB: “footage of the first contact between the highland tribes of Papua New Guinea, and European explorers. In the 1930s three Australian’s, Michael, Daniel and James Leahy were the first white people to venture into the vast New Guinean interior. They searched for gold and found 1 million highland tribespeople who had previously had no contact with the outside world. Amazingly, they took a film camera with them.” The film was nominated for a “Best Documentary” Academy Award in 1984, but didn’t win that year (although I also use Barbara Myerhoff’s Number Our Days, which did win an Oscar in 1977).
Our discussion in class today brought up a number of disparate things that I’ve been thinking about. First, there’s Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle (the lost tribe discovery part, not the filming of Apocalypse Now in the Philippine jungles part) and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (I can’t point out the relevance without spoiling a wonderful book!) — I did not read the former, but did read the latter; it was mentioned to me by a colleague in English (at George Mason) Mark Sample while we were playing soccer. Second, the wide literature in anthropology on studying “lost tribes” (or losing lost tribes) in such works as Anna Tsing’s In the Realm of the Diamond Queen and many others that talk about the problems of objectifying/exoticizing the other. When I asked the class about “who acted like an anthropologist in the film,” one student pointed out that Masta Mick himself could be seen as an anthropologist, in that he did bring a camera to the field and shoot the original footage that Connolly and Anderson splice into their own film (he also shot a bunch of people and a pig in the Papua New Guinea highlands, but that’s another story). This all reminded me about the role of the exotic, or maybe better said the “politics of the exotics” (sounds like a nice course title) in our everyday discourse. Maybe it’s time for a Horace Miner re-mix!